In a press conference on Thursday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that while the newly elected majority of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners did not violate the Open Meetings Act with its first hastily called meeting of the year, their actions raise concerns for government transparency.
Ottawa County’s new board majority, supported by a conservative party opposed to the county’s COVID-19 pandemic mask rules, decided to replace the public health officer and the county administration during their first meeting on January 3. John Gibbs, a conservative Republican who ran against Hillary Scholten and lost in November’s election for the 3rd Congressional District, has replaced John Shay as county administrator.
The county’s motto was changed from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings,” and the Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion Department was abolished. According to Nessel, certain commissioners got together before the meeting to place certain issues on the agenda and rush them through with minimal public pushback.
She called the behavior of several commissioners “unethical” and “nefarious,” even though it appears that the Open Meetings Act was not violated.
“The actions of some of the members of the Ottawa County Board of Commission clearly demonstrate a violation of the spirit of the Open Meetings Act and a blatant violation of public trust and the tenets of government transparency,”
“This was all done outside of the public view and to execute their will without any public interference.”
Nessel has recommended
“Appears to be no actionable violation of the Open Meetings Act,”
Nessel has stated that she will advocate for the adoption of a rule that public institutions publish a 48-hour notice before a meeting with the agenda, limiting the power to amend the agenda except under specified conditions.
In light of the fact that the newly elected members of the county commission had not taken their oath of office prior to the first meeting of the year, Nessel proposed an amendment to the Open Meeting Act that would expand the definition of “public official” to include a person who has been elected or appointed to public office, regardless of whether or not they have taken the oath of office.
“One of the things I guess I am officially recommending to the Ottawa commissioners is, not only does my office have resources on FOIA and OMA on our website for any local elected officials to help them better understand the laws but the Michigan Association of Counties also has resources for new and for inexperienced county commissioners to ensure that they’re the best public servants that they can be,”
According to David Kallman of Kallman Law Group, the board’s newly appointed corporation counsel, who was present at the board’s Jan. 3 meeting, the attorney general seems to have a hard time recognizing that these conservative board members ran on conservative platforms and won in 2022.
“Why does Dana Nessel not accept the results of the election?”
“Instead she weaponizes her department to attack her political opponents. That’s outrageous that she would do that, because she doesn’t like the what the voters did in Ottawa County.”
The board did nothing illegal, and if voters don’t like what these elected officials are doing at the conclusion of their mandates, they can vote them out, Kallman said, adding that the voters of Ottawa County made the decision to value these candidates.
According to Nessel, more letters and emails from citizens were reviewed by her office in preparation for the January 3 meeting than her administration had ever received in relation to a single public body. Many of the comments from the public had to do with a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the board.
On January 10, residents of Ottawa County voiced their displeasure with the new majority on the county board. Thirty-one locals spoke against the commission during the 2.5-hour meeting, while only 16 spoke in favor. None of the other two speakers would make any firm promises.
Kathleen O’Brien, 63, of Port Sheldon, spoke at the January 10 meeting, and she stated the new members lacked openness during the campaign and now that they are in office, they are running the administration the same way.
O’Brien warned the panel,
“You’re injuring our reputation as a community,”
“We’ll be dealing with the impact of your parochial decisions far longer than I care to think.”
Dan Winiarski, 43, of Jenison, disagreed and said he welcomed the board’s proactive moves, likening them to firefighters who needed to put out fires fast to stop what he called the liberal drift of the county.
“You’re honouring your commitments and doing precisely what you said you would,”
“That is so refreshing and out of the ordinary.”
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